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Trump’s lawyers want a mistrial in his New York civil fraud case. They claim the judge is biased

They cited his rulings against their client as well as the prominent role played by the judge’s chief law clerk

Donald Trump
Former U.S. President Donald Trump attends the Trump Organization civil fraud trial, in New York State Supreme Court, New York City, U.S., October 24, 2023.POOL (via REUTERS)

Lawyers for Donald Trump asked for a mistrial Wednesday in the New York civil fraud case that threatens the former president’s real estate empire. They accuse the judge of tainting the proceedings with “tangible and overwhelming” bias.

Trump’s lawyers urged Judge Arthur Engoron to stop the case immediately, arguing he had irreparably harmed Trump’s right to a fair trial through “astonishing departures from ordinary standards of impartiality.” They cited his rulings against their client as well as the prominent role played by the judge’s chief law clerk.

Engoron gave lawyers for New York Attorney General Letitia James’ office until Thursday to decide whether they will file a response before he rules. Last week, he spurned the defense’s request to end the trial through what’s known as a directed verdict.

Trump, the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, has long complained about Engoron, a Democrat. Trump was incensed by a gag order that judge imposed last month at the start of the trial and by a pretrial ruling that could force Trump to surrender control of some marquee properties.

Testifying last week, Trump assailed Engoron as an “extremely hostile” judge and the trial as “very unfair.”

Trump’s lawyers compiled weeks of complaints into their 30-page court filing seeking a mistrial. “The only way to maintain public confidence in a truly independent and impartial judiciary and the rule of law is to bring these proceedings to an immediate halt,” they wrote.

Engoron mentioned the mistrial request only briefly in court Wednesday as defense lawyers continued calling witnesses. He is presiding over what’s known as a bench trial, meaning he will decide the verdict. New York law doesn’t allow a jury in this type of lawsuit.

James’ office said in a statement that Trump was “trying to dismiss the truth and the facts, but the numbers and evidence don’t lie.” It said Trump “is now being held accountable for the years of fraud he committed and the incredible ways he lied to enrich himself and his family. He can keep trying to distract from his fraud, but the truth always comes out.”

James, a Democrat, alleges Trump, his company and top executives exaggerated his wealth by billions of dollars on his financial statements by inflating property values. The documents were given to banks, insurers and others to secure loans and make deals. James is seeking more than $300 million in what she says were ill-gotten gains. She wants the defendants, who include Trump sons Donald Jr. and Eric Trump, banned from doing business in New York.

Before the trial, Engoron ruled that Trump and other defendants committed fraud by exaggerating his net worth and the value of assets on his financial statements. The judge ordered that a receiver take control of some of Trump’s assets. An appeals court is keeping them in his control for now.

Trump’s lawyers had suggested for weeks that they would ask for a mistrial, first raising the issue after the conservative news site Breitbart News published a citizen complaint in early November that accused Engoron’s chief law clerk, Allison Greenfield, of violating court rules by making monetary donations to Democratic causes. Many of those contributions were made when Greenfield, a Democrat, was running for a judicial position in 2022.

Greenfield, who sits alongside Engoron in the courtroom, has been a flashpoint since the trial started Oct. 2. Trump made a disparaging social media post about her on the trial’s second day, leading Engoron to impose a limited gag order barring participants in the case from smearing court staff.

Engoron fined Trump $15,000 for twice violating the order and expanded it on Nov. 3 to include Trump’s lawyers after they complained in court about Greenfield passing notes to Engoron. Trump lawyer Christopher Kise said he felt like he was “fighting two adversaries.” The judge said he had “an absolutely unfettered right” to her advice.

In their mistrial motion, Trump’s lawyers accused Engoron of letting Greenfield act as “a de facto co-judge,” and they questioned whether her political leanings were influencing what they perceived as a “demonstrable pro-Attorney General and antiTrump/big real estate bias.”

Trump’s lawyers complained that Engoron’s insistence they they not refer to Greenfield and his expanded gag order barring attacks on his judicial staff “interferes with counsel’s ability to zealously advocate for their clients.”

A state court spokesperson declined comment on behalf of Engoron and Greenfield, citing “active, ongoing litigation.”

State ethics rules bar members of a judge’s staff from making more than $500 in political donations in a single year. There are exceptions when a staff member is running for a seat on the bench.

In that case, they are allowed to exceed the cap to purchase tickets to political events, as long as they do not buy more than more than two per event and the cost per ticket is not more than $250.

Greenfield ran for a civil court judgeship in Manhattan in 2022. Her contributions, which totaled more than $4,000 during that time, appear to have gone primarily to buy tickets to events hosted by local Democratic clubs.

Judicial candidates in New York are widely expected to attend those events, which are seen as helpful to getting the party’s endorsement. Legal experts say candidates have an ethical duty to pay to attend the events, rather than accept free tickets.

“If she hadn’t paid, that would be a problem,” said Jerry Goldfeder, a veteran New York election lawyer and director of Fordham Law School’s Voting Rights and Democracy Project.

Goldfeder said the defense’s allegations were “totally misplaced,” suggesting Trump’s legal team “either doesn’t understand the law or doesn’t care about it.”

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